“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Recently the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Ms. Mentor offered words of advice to a young master’s degree student in the humanities, who says to her, “They say I’ll never get a job.” And Ms. Mentor, thankfully, agrees.  She does her best to dissuade this eager, intelligent young mind who is bent on further knowledge, further praise for his or her pursuit of this chosen field, and offers up the following advice:

So how should you rethink the traditional parade from honor society to Ph.D. to professor? Ms. Mentor suggests you identify your early drive, the thing that you wanted to do—and got praised for—when you were a tyke. Tiger Woods was already swinging a golf club when he was 2. By age 5, Mozart was composing music; Edith Wharton was making up short stories. Jean Piaget published his first scientific paper, on albino sparrows, when he was 11.
Can you make a living doing some version of your youthful drive? That is the stumbly step…

Indeed, I’ve been thinking a lot lately, with the help of my career coach, about this stumbly step, about the things that drove me and what I liked to do when I was a tyke.  This idea, that one should look back to what one wanted to do when very little, seems to have a lot of currency. It’s like finding your passion, but even more so, because when you were a kid, presumably the things you wanted to do with your life had little to do with practicality, feasibility, or any other such humdrum matters that might stop up the thinking of us more world-weary grown-ups.

My daughter, who is five years old, developed out of seemingly nowhere a year ago, a couple of convenient answers to the question, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” One was to be a firefighter, and the other was to be a paleontologist, because she loves the show Dinosaur Train. I have no idea where the firefighter idea came from.  The paleontologist at least makes sense, until you show her an actual museum of real fossils, and suddenly, when the dinosaurs before her no longer look like Buddy and Tiny, she’s turning into her father’s or my shoulder and waist, afraid of the real bones before her.

Over the years, I had what seems like a fairly extensive, and not obviously well-connected, list of things I wanted to do, ranging from being an astronaut, a park ranger, a writer, an anthropologist, a movie director, a professional classical musician, and eventually, once I hit college and a couple of things came together for me, struck on the idea of being a college professor. Now that I’m pursuing this alt-ac journey, I don’t think I’m going to go back and try to be an astronaut (my fifth-grade teacher was right about the math) or a park ranger (why do I have to have interests for which its damnably hard to find jobs?)… but hopefully somewhere in this list is a clue to that early drive that kicked me into high gear.  What I can see is that  some of them have to do with gathering and disseminating knowledge, and some of them have to do with creating something that evokes an experience. The two are related, really, as two sides of the same coin, two ways of accessing the same youthful questions that animated me for years and years. Recently the weight of the emphasis has fallen pretty heavily on knowledge, rather than creation, and what I will do with that little fact remains to be seen.

What about you? Are you following your earliest dreams from when you were a tyke? Does the post-ac life somehow fit better with those early goals and ideals, or do academia and what you’re doing now mesh pretty well with your childhood aspirations? 



Spirits from my academic past

I promise, an overdue post about gender is coming soon — I keep editing and tinkering. But in the meantime… 

This past week, I visited the school where my advisor now teaches. My husband was on a program, and several grad school friends were there, so the whole family went along. It was great to see these people who meant so much to me for so many years, but also a little awkward, and in my own thoughts at least, a little bittersweet. It was, in a way, as if my own spirits of my academic past had visited, a-la-Dickens and Scrooge, to remind me of what was. I talked about pursuing altac positions with my friends, and while they understood from a general perspective, I think they were also a little sad. It became clear that they thought well of me as not just a person, but as a scholar and an academic, and thought I’d been doing great work. My advisor, who I told I was pursuing alternative academic employment, was understanding of not wanting the exploitation of adjunction, but also assumed I’d still be pursuing/”working on” intellectual questions that interest me. He, too, valued the work I had done, and I don’t think he realized what a separation from the life I’d once pursued I am now trying to make.

The return journey home got me thinking about why this was all so bittersweet, of course, and several things occurred to me. Not only do I:

  1. like to work with people on specific projects and 
  2. like to organize information into a coherent story or narrative, but also
  3. I want to feel that what I’m doing on a day-to-day basis is helpful and relevant, and therefore meaningful. 

And researching those very specific questions of intellectual interest felt helpful, relevant, and meaningful when surrounded by people who felt the same way and could pat me on the back, and I on theirs, and we could tell each other how great we all were. It even, at the time, felt like work (although I did have moment when I’d think about how odd it was to say “I’m working on these people living in this time, doing these things,” rather than actual work like writing, or teaching, or making things, or managing, or whatever else counts as work outside of academia). But now that it’s been several years (!) since I defended the dissertation and conversed regularly on those questions, they came to feel less helpful, relevant, and eventually, not as meaningful.

This is what makes me feel the most bittersweet of all, since it was the pursuit of a very particular set of research questions and interests that drove me to graduate school in the first place. For those to have lost some of their driving force does indeed make me feel like I’ve perhaps lost something precious.

Yes, teaching at times felt relevant and helpful (especially with my online seminarian students, not so much with my undergrads taking introductory classes), but more often than not, the balance was on the less helpful, rather than the more. To be told just this week by these colleagues and friends that the work I had done was valuable and meaningful to them makes me feel very sad I’m no longer contributing to those conversations that once meant so much.

If I think pragmatically, though, I know I need more than a hypothetical audience of a few scholars who are interested in similar questions. One of my mentors once said to a circle of graduate students, after a panel honoring her recent book, “after so many years, it feels so good to have all that I’ve worked on be validated like this.” I remember feeling boggled that she’d persisted with so little positive reinforcement (as her words implied). I don’t know that I can do that. I think I need my day-to-day work to actually feel helpful to the people I’m with, not a hypothetical audience years down the line. I know it’ll get easier, but I didn’t know how much this visit was going to stir up some of the messier side of life in the trenches of leaving academia.

Jobs I Haven’t Liked

As a part of taking stock of what I do and don’t want to do in terms of career, one of the most entertaining activities suggested by an advice book involved describing my “Job From Hell.” What resulted was a composite of the various summer and other temp jobs I held at during and soon after my undergraduate days. A composite  look at these jobs says much about what I probably don’t want to do with my life. To wit:

Summer after freshman year, I found a job through a temp agency as a receptionist at a arbitration and mediation firm. It was an eye-opener. I knew nothing about the law other than lawyer jokes, so I enjoyed learning a little about the profession, but knew enough to be pretty certain that the aggressiveness of lawyerhood was not up my alley. I handled all the basic receptionist duties: setting out the coffee and cookies in the waiting room (they were the butter cookies that came in the round blue tin, and those ones with the sugar crystals on top were particularly tasty), calling lawyers when their appointments came in, making confirmation calls the day before.

Royal Dansk cookies

At the end of the summer, one of the nicer lawyers wrote me a recommendation letter, and showed it to me. He praised me for being on time, organized, and responsible. This was not the sort of recommendation letter I was used to (since I was used to college application-style recommendations praising my smarts and creativity, not such basic things as organization), and it was a strange taste of what was expected in the real business world.

The next summer, I had a lovely job as a intern for a non-profit news program, located in Washington DC. I will save that for a post on jobs I enjoyed, though.

The summer after my junior year, I worked again as a temporary receptionist at a law office, probably the public defender’s office… I don’t quite remember. I do remember having to keep track of which staff members were in the building, which when you are as bad at names as I am, was no easy or pleasant task.  I don’t recall much about the job itself. I know I didn’t like being a receptionist, but there I was, back at it again! I think I did something with the police reports that came in every day. The only reason I remember this is because one of them was for a mostly minor act of violence or vandalism right nearby the apartment I’d rented for the summer.  I don’t recall if I told my parents about it, or they may have been unduly alarmed. I certainly was more alarmed than I necessarily needed to be.

Quite probably my least favorite job of all was the one I took between my masters’ and my PhD program. I had moved to live with my then-boyfriend (now spouse), and was taking a year off to reapply to PhD programs. While I looked for something more permanent, a temp agency placed me with an insurance office affiliated with Medicaid. Once again, I don’t recall the specifics, but I know the job involved processing paperwork that, if it hadn’t been filled out and submitted the right way, by the right date, resulted in little kids across the state being denied coverage for mental health issues. It was so very depressing. At the top of my list of jobs I don’t want are jobs that involve paperwork that makes a child’s life more difficult and unhappy than it already has to be. Thankfully, I only needed to endure that job for about 6 weeks when I found a job at a university research library (hallelujah, and more on that in another post).

I know that at some point I may need to look into temping again, but these examples make me extremely hesitant of doing so. I don’t want to have to put myself out there on the receptionist, denying-kids-health-care circuit. I really don’t want to. Knowing what you don’t want, I suppose, is half the battle, but why does it have to be the easier half?

I think what I disliked most  was obviously the denying kids coverage aspect. Beyond this, though, I can generalize a dislike of full-time receptionist work, being permanently on display, or at least, in view. (I didn’t mind library circulation desk work, which probably differs from receptionist work in some key ways, despite its shared publicness). I didn’t like the doing-things-by-rote nature of the work being done, where rather than build relationships to complete particular projects, I had very fleeting, relatively impersonal tasks to accomplish.

In terms of location, I wasn’t a fan of the insurance company’s suburban boxy office building, requiring a car to get anywhere or do anything (such as get lunch from one of the many establishments that catered to the lunchtime office crowd) other than go into the building. The law office buildings, by contrast, were located in vibrant downtown areas, and I enjoyed walking around at lunchtime, visiting farmers’ markets, stepping into the cool dark of churches, or sitting on a park bench under a tree. The vibrancy of the surrounding environment did much to make up for my otherwise dislike of the by-rote nature of the job I had to do.

When I wrote my “jobs from hell” description, I emphasized the boxy cubicles, repetitive tasks, a lack of windows anywhere, too much pavement, and a lot of bad fast food. But the final lines were probably the most telling, given the way I remember writing them as if they were indeed a true vision of hell:

No books at all! Books are forbidden!

No books, no books at all! Books and reading (and similar activities like using Kindles and iPads, or reading interesting articles, etc.) are totally forbidden! No no no! Don’t make me go there! 

I think that answers one aspect of “what to do with the books.” In my ideal job, there must be books, or similar elements of written-word, idea-conveying media. To be clear, this doesn’t surprise me at all, and I have several ideas of where it all might be headed.

Hello, and welcome!

I never thought I’d start a blog about the post-academic career process. Yet here I am. I’ve had enough thoughts running through my mind over the past few months, and I feel the need to try to set them in a semblance of order. I really wasn’t going to blog, but then The Atlantic published that article about how being married helps male professors “get ahead,” and it’s spurred me to action.  The article felt very, very relevant to my own recent thoughts about an alternative academic life after the PhD.

… at faculty dinners, […] wives outside the academy explain they, too, once pursued a higher degree. Without fail, they look at you a little sadly and say, “best of luck” or, far worse, “stick with it.”

These faculty dinners are my new future, I thought. My husband has just started a new tenure-track job in a new city and state, and I am the oh-so-unfortunately named “trailing spouse.” He certainly doesn’t mean to put me in that position, but our luck of the draw has brought us here. The article hit even closer to home as it described the job searches of a husband-and-wife dual-historian couple. The similarities were too much to avoid:

He and his wife received concurrent doctorates in their respective fields, but he was offered a position first. “That meant the area she could look in shrank quite a bit,” he said, “and by then we had kids.” At the time, she was an adjunct professor without maternity leave, and so she stayed at home to raise their children. When she eventually returned to teaching, it was at the high school level.

When I started dissertation work, I moved to a rural location where my husband had just accepted a tenure-track job at a very (very) small liberal arts college.  “At least it’s a job!” we told ourselves. Over the five years we enjoyed beautiful hiking and mountain music, we had a child, and I finished my PhD. I applied for academic posts, certainly, and I received a few interviews over the course of as many years. But when one of us, in this case my spouse, became the first to receive a better offer elsewhere – and in a large Midwestern city with plenty of schools and cultural institutions no less – we jumped at the chance.

Two years ago I received my PhD in religious studies, one of those humanities fields where full-time jobs are scarcer than adjuncts. Our daughter is now three years old, and we have one more child very much on the way.  I’ve worked from home and I’ve adjuncted online and on campus as much as I could given my former rural location, but now that we’re here in the big city, I’m ready to try something else.

This blog will be a chronicle of why I got into academia in the first place, why I’m looking elsewhere for career options, and of the post-ac job search process itself. My life as part of a dual-career couple with a child certainly plays a role, but there are other reasons, too, for looking for a post-academic career, among them my own growing disenchantment with the academic life. If you’d like to read along to find out where I’ve been or where I might be headed, I’d be happy to have you here! And perhaps one day I’ll answer the question of what to do with all the books I collected over the years…